NAME: Lee Maen HOMETOWN: Beverly Hills
COMPANY: Innovative Dining Group TITLE: Founding Partner
From his office on the Sunset Strip, Lee Maen, 48, can almost see the Beverly Hills neighborhood where he grew up. Across the street is a Roku, one of the brands Maen has launched with partners Phil Cummins and Craig Katz through their firm Innovative Dining Group over the past 20 years. The group now operates 15 restaurants in Los Angeles and the Southwest, including BOA Steakhouse, sushi Roku, and Robata Bar, and has four franchises in Abu Dhabi. A new branch of their Japanese restaurant Katana is scheduled to open in Chicago in July. The company has about 1,500 employees and is projecting revenue of $100 million this year. Maen became chairman of the Sunset Strip Business Improvement District last year and is on the board of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
How are you keeping your restaurants, some of which have been around almost 20 years, relevant?
There’s a lot of emphasis on organic, vegan, gluten free, sourcing. Delivery is more
important than ever.
Delivery? That can be a challenge at the higher end.
We’re doing a lot more of it. Packaging is becoming very important so when somebody is unwrapping their food at their desk, they see your brand. We’re testing new packaging versus the typical plastic. (Delivery) is not necessarily as profitable, but it’s one less person taking up space in your restaurant. It’s a new source of business.
That’s important these days.
There are a lot of issues affecting restaurants, specifically in California. The minimum wage, health care premiums, and things like paid time off. Restaurants are closing left and right. It’s something people warned would happen and it’s happening. Great restaurants that have been open 20 years are closing: Formosa Café, Nic’s Beverly Hills; the list goes on.
But did those restaurants close because of things such as the minimum wage?
A lot of other things are involved, too – competition; seemingly the market has let a lot of restaurants open up lately, which is great, but it’s saturated. And there’s a shortage of labor. Prices are going up every which way, but you can’t raise prices to match because then you start losing guests.
There’s going to be a lot of shakeout over the next year.
How does that affect IDG?
I’m stressed but cautiously optimistic that with less competition we get those guests and labor. We’ve spent a lot of time investing in software so we can move pretty quickly to adjust to the environment. We can do smart scheduling, reduce labor needs.
How else are you cutting labor costs?
I’m for a living wage. The problem is California is one of a few states that don’t allow for a tip credit. Other states such as New York allow for the front of house staff, which gets tipped, to have a little bit lesser wage because they’re already making way over. That’s why a lot of restaurants are going to be including a gratuity or raising prices and having no tipping. That might be where the future is.
You’ve made plans to open in Chicago. Why not New York?
We’ve looked at New York over the years, but we’ve never come across the right space. We came across a really good opportunity (in Chicago) – great space, great deal. It’s getting toward New York.
You’ve been critical of the Sunset Strip BID in the past. Now you’re its chairman as of last year. What are you looking to do?
We have rights to get the revenue from leasing out the banners on Sunset Boulevard, and (the) Jack Daniel’s contract is up. We’re trying to find some new advertisers for the Strip. As we collect more revenue from the banners or otherwise, we’re looking to build the brand of the Sunset Strip: possibly have an event this year, market the Strip internationally, (do) social media, maintain a website, and Instagram.
What would that look like?
One of the things we’re working with the city on is some kind of identity on the street so as you drive into the city of West Hollywood, you know you’re on Sunset. You go down to Beverly Hills and see the sign, there’s always people taking pictures there. It’s like the Instagram moment. We want to have that.
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